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Let’s talk about sex … and so much more – ‘Becoming Dr. Ruth’

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Let’s talk about sex … and so much more – ‘Becoming Dr. Ruth’ (photo by Bill Kuykendall)

BANGOR – Sex sells. Even when the person discussing it might not be who you’d expect.

Penobscot Theatre Company’s latest production is “Becoming Dr. Ruth,” a one-person show celebrating the life and times of renowned sex therapist and pop cultural icon Dr. Ruth Westheimer. Starring Jen Shepard and directed by Julie Lisnet, the piece – written by Mark St. Germain – is running at the Bangor Opera House through May 22. For tickets or more information, visit the PTC website at www.penobscottheatre.org or call the box office at 942-3333.

The piece – which is set entirely within Dr. Ruth’s New York City apartment – takes place on a June day in 1997. It is a freewheeling tale of one woman’s incredible journey, one that took her all over the world and influenced her in ways large and small – all related to us by the woman herself. The vast majority of us think we know Dr. Ruth – the tiny smiling woman offering sex advice via radio and television – but that aspect of her life, while important, is just one part of her incredible story.

The woman we would come to know as Dr. Ruth Westheimer was born Karola Ruth Siegel in Germany on June 4, 1928. She spent the first decade of her life as part of a family that placed great value on education, with loving parents and an imperious grandmother doing their best to give her a happy life.

But in 1938, as the Nazi rise to power in Germany marched on, young Karola was chosen by lottery as one of the Jewish children who would be sent away from Germany via the kindertransport. A few months later, she wound up in an orphanage in Switzerland where she would spend the next seven years. She encountered plenty of prejudices and struggles there; she would also lose her parents and many more to the ravages of the Holocaust.

At the age of 17, she would go to Israel, where she would join a kibbutz and – eventually – the Haganah paramilitary underground, where she would serve as a scout (because of her diminutive size) and sniper (due to her keen aim). The rigors of war would strike closely yet again – an incident during the Palestine War left her badly injured and in danger of losing her feet.

After she recovered, the newly-married 20-year-old wound up in Paris, studying at the Sorbonne and teaching at a kindergarten. And then, in 1956, she immigrated to the United States, a single mother (she divorced) working as a maid to pay for graduate studies – studies that provided their own set of obstacles and inspirations. It was during this period that she earned her doctorate in education and began her lifelong study of sex therapy.

She would marry Manfred Westheimer in 1967 – her third marriage – and would spend the next decade-plus working in sex education and sex therapy before winding up on the radio one fateful evening for 15 minutes. It was a quarter-hour that would forever alter the way sex was discussed – for the better.

That’s a lot, right? And here’s the thing – that’s not even close to all of it.

“Becoming Dr. Ruth” offers us an opportunity to get to know the person behind the persona in a very up close and personal way. For 90 minutes, it is just us – the audience – sitting and watching as the diminutive powerhouse that is Dr. Ruth holds court, walking us through the rollercoaster triumphs and tragedies that marked her long and eventful life.

What we all know about Dr. Ruth – the accented sex talk via her radio show or her late-night guest spots or syndicated TV - is a significant part of her story, of course. But it isn’t the whole story. We all contain multitudes, but Dr. Ruth Westheimer’s are a bit more … multitudinous … than most.

Bringing such a familiar figure to life is a tricky proposition, especially when we’re talking about someone who is so distinctly idiosyncratic. From the vagaries of her accent – German/Israeli/French/American – to the outsized personal presence of one so small, the role of Dr. Ruth demands pinpoint attention to detail and a carefully struck balance; she is a very specific character, yes, but one whose portrayal could easily devolve into cartoonish caricature. Add to that the general demands that come from a one-person show, and it’s clear that very few performers could pull it off.

Jen Shepard pulls it off.

The actress – best known for her comedic work, both at PTC and as a gifted improvisor – proves that she is more than capable of taking things seriously. Her Dr. Ruth is nuanced and engaged, ranging from levity to somberness with relative ease. Dr. Ruth’s story is one that demands a specific and sometimes subtle variance of tone; anyone who has seen her work knows that Shepard’s comic capabilities are significant – and she gets plenty of laughs throughout – but it is in those quieter moments that we see just why she is standing in Dr. Ruth’s shoes.

Shepard roams the stage with impunity even as she makes herself – and by extension, the audience – at home. We have been invited into this person’s house and allowed access to a rich and complicated story of a life well-lived. This Dr. Ruth is not a joke or a punchline. She is a very real person, one willing to bare her soul to us just as so many people have bared own their souls to her over the decades.

Being alone onstage is hard. Extremely hard. And when it’s a room as large as the Bangor Opera House, it’s even harder than that. And yet, this show marks the second of the current season – “Tell Me on a Sunday” was the other – where we’ve watched singular performers captivate audiences.

Director Lisnet deserves her share of credit as well. Not only has she helped Shepard mine the particularities of the character, but she has also provided a welcome kineticism. Look – we’re in a single setting here. The tendency is always going to be toward a sense of the static with one person, acting and interacting alone – there are a few phone calls, but even those are one-sided. What Lisnet does is build that fluidity, allowing Shepard to give us a sense of consistent motion without constant movement.

The production values are on point as per usual. Chez Cherry’s scenic design brings Dr. Ruth’s home to life, providing a lovely and functional playing space. I remain ever impressed by Scout Hough’s gifts for evocative lighting choices; even when the work is subtle, as it often is here, it unfailingly connects. Kevin Koski, Neil Graham and Meredith Perry – costumes, sound and props designs, respectively – offer their standard good work, from Koski’s spirit-capturing outfit and wig choices to Graham’s deftness (the radio station sequence is particularly solid) to Perry’s meticulously-chosen clutter. Oh, and the production makes good use of a projection screen, designed by John Siedenberg II and executed by Tony Gerow.

“Becoming Dr. Ruth” is an engaging theatrical experience, one that offers up the whole of a story that many of us knew only in part. Sometimes hilarious, other times heartbreaking, it’s a show that honors its incredible subject, thanks to some typically excellent production work and a top-tier performance from Jen Shepard. Sex sells … and I’m buying. You should too.

(“Becoming Dr. Ruth” runs through May 22 at the Bangor Opera House. For tickets or more info, visit the PTC website at www.penobscottheatre.org or call the box office at 942-3333.)

Last modified on Wednesday, 11 May 2022 11:04

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